Spring Arts: Steve Quenell’s Deep Cuts

The artist’s collages capture the complicated essence of a folk hero.

It's become obvious to collage-artist Steve Quenell that he either has to rent a bigger apartment or rethink his approach. Since he never knows when a certain picture will be useful, he finds it best to just keep old dictionaries, encyclopedias, and magazines around. "When those pile up, they take up a lot of room," he says. "Especially National Geographic." Quenell doesn't yet have the prominent profile of many artists working in the Seattle music world, but he's getting there. His most public pieces to date have all been album artwork. Even then, the performer he's most associated with—his friend Ben Chasny, aka Six Organs of Admittance—is relatively low-profile. An adventurous musician (who in September relocated to Seattle from the Bay Area), Chasny's mix of Japanese folk, Middle Eastern drone, British guitar, and California psychedelia has won him an intense following. And his fans prefer to buy records over downloads (many of them on vinyl LP). Those who show up to Chasny's intimate Sunset Tavern or Nectar gigs are rabid enough to keep tabs on details like who is doing all the cool artwork for those albums. Quenell's friendship with Chasny has not only led to regular work. Quenell can now—at age 36, and after dabbling in visual art since high school—officially say he has developed a style all his own. According to Quenell, Chasny was preparing in 2005 to release School of the Flower, his first Six Organs record for Chicago indie label Drag City. Chasny really wasn't pleased with the cover art he had previously chosen, so he called Quenell, whom he has known since high school in Eureka, Calif., and said, "You want to give it a shot?" Quenell agreed, and Chasny added: "OK...uh, just so you know, the label needs it in 24 hours." Quenell hadn't heard the record, but was familiar enough with his friend's sound. He set to work on a simple colored-paper cutout of a gray moon melting waxlike down the length of the cover into a charred forest below. It was a simple, stark image, and its ample negative space made it ominous but serene, just like Six Organs' music. But it needed something else. "I went to bed," says Quenell. "And I swear to you it was the morning Mt. St. Helens erupted there a few years ago [in 2005], because I woke up and I was like, 'It needs something hot, that fire element.'" And so he added a simple red blotch in the middle of the vast whiteness of the image. Chasny has since enlisted Quenell to do the artwork for every Six Organs album, all of it bearing Quenell's now-signature style. With each collage—whether for Six Organs or otherwise—Quenell creates fantasy worlds with atmospheres equally meditative and foreboding. Praying women mingle with roots the size of giant worms, ominous suns rise up behind dark, menacing mountains, and trees and foliage emerge like forms from a chemically altered subconscious. Like the hallucinations described by South American shamans, his work is psychedelic and spiritual, but weighted down with a bleak reminder that we humans don't control the natural world, it controls us. Quenell blames his style on his rural Northern California upbringing. "When I was growing up, a lot of the hippies were getting into the occult," he says. Largely self-taught, he took no more than one graphics class in high school. But friends remember him dabbling in collage-y work both during and after high school. "Making music comps was a big pastime of Steve's, and his covers were always great," says Brandon Bay, a Eureka native and guitarist for local band I'm a Gun. Bay moved to Seattle in 1997, and encouraged Quenell to join him. When Bay shows me some flyer art Quenell did for I'm A Gun, it's obvious the collage element has always been there, albeit in a simpler punk-rock form, such as a photocopied image of two Pacific Island tribesmen, one with a black hole Sharpied out where his head should be. Looking at his most recent album art for Six Organs' RTZ, it's obvious that Quenell's come a long way since his punk-rock-via-Kinko's work. "Collage is tricky," says Bay. "It can easily be indulgent. I think Steve's eye for being interesting yet showing restraint is what sets him apart." It's also paid off in a relatively short time. In addition to landing album-art gigs with piano-pop band Colossal Yes and psychedelic drone group the Warlocks, Quenell is gearing up for his first ever "exhibition" this spring at Nancy, a gallery/store in Belltown, whose co-owner Kate Greiner has known Quenell since their post-high-school days working at Amigas Burritos in Eureka. Quenell says the show will feature all his album prints mounted on wood, plus a series of hand-decorated postcards from his "bird séance" series. It's likely to be quite a bit darker than the youthfully ironic art you typically find hanging in a retail space. But the nostalgic and escapist streak running through Quenell's collages will strike a chord with anyone who spent hours lost in their parents' album covers. bbarr@seattleweekly.com

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